Leftovers 1.1: In which we upcycle dystopia, and downgrade upcycling
Aesthetically speaking, there are two kinds of dystopias. There are the gleaming surfaces of the faux-Utopian one state as in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, We, or 1984, where perfect order conceals the violent repression of difference. Then there’s the flaming trash heap of civilization, the post-apocalyptic dystopia where humans and other beings muddle through tides of detritus.
It’s not really a binary, of course. Nancy Farmer’s Zimbabwe in YA dystopian masterpiece The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm contains both manicured suburban homes and burning landfills where lost plastic-mining mutants work from home. Farel Dalrymple’s apocalyptic fever-dream comic The Wrenchies visualizes an earth-surface swimming in trash that’s also pocked with secret hatches leading down to techno-paradise clubhouses of food, drugs, and time travel. Pixar’s Wall-E (literally) compresses both tropes in its world of vast trash-cube skyscrapers presided over by a little perpetual motion robot who’s lack of time-sense means he doesn’t know that he’s in hell.
One relatively recent triumph of the trash dystopia aesthetic is Mad Max: Fury Road. The movie’s set design imagines a post-apocalypse in which all items are repurposed from the lost civilization of before: “One of the big problems with most apocalyptic movies,” notes writer, producer and director George Miller in a video on the making of the film, is that “the instinct of everyone is to make the world look like a junkyard, and it doesn’t stand up to human behavior.” He’s got a point: we’d need our junk in a post-apocalypse, since we’d be used to living with materials—steel, plastic—that we simply couldn’t make ourselves anymore.
But Miller goes further than just imagining his roadless road warriors as scavengers, he sees them as artists, too. People, Miller argues, always like to make things beautiful. So except for its profligate dispensation of diesel, the wasteland in Fury Road is imagined as an almost waste-less land of metal upcycling. Forks become facemasks, drainage pipes turn sun-hats, old road signs are repurposed as shields for road warriors. Everything else is pretty much just sand. Mad Max makes a vision in which any particular tool is recognizable first by its purpose, and only on a second, closer inspection as a bricolage of post-industrial litter.
What’s so pleasing about all these subtle callbacks to our world of modern stuff? Production designer Colin Gibson says of the film’s design cues that “Everything should be recognized, but what we hope is that a lot of it is out of context, and that that jarring is basically what gives it a new freshness.” His words call up the immortal aphorisms of anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose book on the sacred and profane, Purity and Danger is a classic of post-structuralist anthropology.
Douglas explains that though some concept of dirt is consistent across cultures, there is nothing, not even shit, that is objectively dirty to everyone. Dirt’s definition, as she gives it, is “matter out of place.” Dirt is stuff in the wrong category. Take, say, your toothbrush as a random example. Squeeze some toothpaste out on your brush and it’s a sign of hygiene, a pompadour of purity. Squeeze some soap all over your brush and apply it vigorously to your pet hedgehog, however, you (probably?) no longer want to put that in your mouth, because it’s dirty, it’s matter out of place. The hedgehog on the other hand, is clean, and cute. I do sort of want to put it in my mouth.
Anyway, both soap and toothbrush are dirt now, but in the finite physical world, matter out of place doesn’t stay out of place forever. We recuperate it back into ordered systems, rinsing the soap off your hedgehog and sending it on down the drain where it now belongs. Pause this process in the middle, however, and things get gross again, as anyone who’s ever cleaned a drain can tell you. As Douglas puts it: “it is unpleasant to poke about in the refuse to recover anything, for this revives identity. So long as identity is absent, rubbish is not dangerous.” But as long as rubbish is recognizable it retains the “power to move”—that “jarring” feeling that Miller is aiming for in the people who watch his film and suddenly see bits of their own life regurgitated as a monstrous future. The feeling works to identify readers with the characters cruising through the post-apocalypse, like suddenly finding your own face in the background of an unfamiliar and upsetting photograph. As an aesthetic move, it’s meant to make you realize—I was there.
The theorist Jane Bennett has another word for this feeling, she calls it “enchantment.” Or I guess enchantment isn’t so much the feeling that “I was there,” when we see matter out of place, as the feeling that matter doesn’t need human recognition or action in order to find its place at all. It’s an update, in some ways, to Douglas’ 1966 idea of dirt. For example, here’s how Bennett, in her book Vibrant Matter, describes a pile of trash she encountered one sunny day collected in a storm drain in Baltimore:
“one large men’s black plastic work glove
one dense mat of oak pollen
one unblemished dead rat
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood.”
Bennett is both called to understand the objects as trashy monuments to human achievement and as objects meaningful in themselves. As
“stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterers toss, the rat-poisoner’s success), and on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects. In the second moment, stuff exhibited its thing-power: it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying. It provoked affects in me . . . but I also felt something else: a nameless awareness of the impossible singularity of that rat, that configuration of pollen, that otherwise utterly banal, mass-produced plastic water-bottle cap.”
In other words, humans are only one among a network of agents vast unto sublimity, including wind, water, traffic patterns, social structures, storm-grates, dinosaurs, gravity, rivers, and of course one another, that accounts for these objects being in this place. The enchantment of modern life (also the title of Bennett’s first book on this subject) comes from the recognition of thing power—and the relinquishing of an idea of human agency, intelligence, and subjectivity as the sole force behind all actions in the world. Leftovers, a second thread on YesWeHaveNo, is going to examine the tension between matter out of place and enchanted matter, between being garbage and having thing power, and the way that both ideas of stuff apply to current experiences of being in and out of place. True to the whole idea of the leftover, I’m not yet ready to leave our first thread, Interesting Times, behind. I’m still stuck on dystopia (well, you might say that as an American in 2017, dystopia’s stuck on me), but this thread will also contain texts and contexts that hail from elsewhere than the zombie wars. Hell, I might even throw in my recipe for using day-old French fries, since I assume we’re all still hungry.
*With thanks to Andrew Nash for this post’s featured image.